It has been long since the days of women wearing corsets every day, donning the newly invented brasserie shortly after the women won the right to vote. For years, people looked back at our fashion history in abject horror. Like discovering old pictures of how we used to look in secondary school (don’t worry, we all thought that hair straightening didn’t work unless it sizzled). Our modern brains are unable to fathom being able to wear these “restrictive garments” for a few hours, let alone every day. Horror stories of women being permanently disfigured from prolonged use are abundant. In more recent times, corsets adopted a more erotic and sexier connotation- often worn in burlesque performances for that desired “sex appeal”. Corsets have always possessed a particular erotic association for most people. Giving the illusion of a better figure and hiding the parts we’re more self-conscious about. A universal desire we’ve all beheld, fuelled by fear. But it seems that despite their bad reputation, their every day and more casual usage is making a comeback- in a very feminist way.
It is undeniable that, in the past, the corset has garnered quite a discussion as to whether it was considered “feminist”. After all, the aim of a corset was to give a “womanlier” figure, wasn’t it? This overly sexualising, male-centered view of women isn’t considered a pro when it comes to the feminist movement. However historically, corsets had more of a goal of giving the woman the fashionable silhouette. From times before the illusion of a high waist, as seen in Netflix’s Bridgerton, to the “pigeon-breasted” craze of the Edwardians. Of course, there were the social expectations of a woman to wear her corset- even throughout pregnancy, but there were different styles for all sorts. It wasn’t quite as simple as “one style for all”.
For far too long, corsets were wrongfully misinformed to be these oppressive garments, used to control women, and suit the male gaze. I’m sure anyone who has talked about corsetry has heard rumours of women fainting or even dying from wearing the ultra-fashionable foundations. An infamous example is of Kitty Tyrrell, a Victorian actress, who supposedly died from wearing a corset. These were largely exaggerated misnomers, remedied by a Dr. Barber, who carried out the autopsy. In his words, Kitty’s death might have been a combination of a heart condition and the rarely taken practice of “tight lacing”, something which was even frowned upon at the time. But it was too late, the damage was already done. An exaggerated news report and a couple of hundred years later, women have a prenotion that corsets are too dangerous to wear. Others complain that women were forced to wear corsets because it gave them better, more unrealistic bodies. Whilst it is true that women gained the fashionable silhouette with a corset, it also made it a smoother body shape. This meant that the outer fabrics of the outfit wouldn’t wrinkle and look unsightly. To have wrinkled layers was to look dishevelled, something the ladies of the past would loathe to be called. The only reason why modern-day women feel the corset is restrictive is because they didn’t grow up wearing one like they did. Even new shoes can feel sore until they are worn in some. Still, with women gaining more freedom, they required a freer fashion, and a reduced fear of displaced organs and death. So, the corset was flung aside and left in the past. That was, until its short-lived revivals in the 1940s and 1980s.
So why are corsets making a comeback again?
Well, like most fashion trends nowadays, it was born by the media. A trend brought about by the immensely popular Netflix show Bridgerton. A series based in the time of Regency England. Corsets had already started creeping back into style in the Fall/Winter Fashion Week of 2019/2020. With many famous faces such as Gigi Hadid and Janaye Furman being shot wearing one. However, it wasn’t until Bridgerton when the craze took off.
On Christmas Day 2020, Netflix released one of its biggest series to date, earning Netflix gross views of 82 million in the first month of release. A new record for the streaming giants. People were infatuated with everything about this show. From the story and actors to the fashion and the music, it became a hit. Let’s not forget the unforgettable string quartet rendition of Ariana Grande’s Thank U, Next that we never knew we needed until then. The show sparked a rekindled love of regency and romanticism. Fantasies of princess-core and history bounding could be achieved with a historical style corset and a long, flowing skirt. All to capture some of the show in their lives. According to the online auction site eBay, figures show that searches for Corsets went up by 39% after Bridgerton aired. Corsets were starting to be seen as trendy again, rather than the oppressive, restrictive garments they had once been labelled as for so long. A show with the drama and intrigue of a Jane Austin novel had reignited a love of a bygone fashion.
So how is this a sign of feminist reclamation?
Feminist reclamation is hardly a new subject itself. However, it does loan a lot of firepower to the feminist movement, by reclaiming a previously negative and oppressively viewed item for women. Whilst the corsets in fashion nowadays aren’t as structured or as boned as they were back then, these Bridgerton-inspired corsets have evolved to be more comfortable for the modern body; whilst still maintaining some historical styles and prints. People are able to freely wear them alone, or as an accessory to accompany an ensemble. It can be very empowering- repurposing a garment that has had such a sordid and negative history. Most women who have taken up wearing corsets as a more casual garment, have reported feeling better about themselves- with a corset adding a very feminine (but structured) look to any outfit. Very unlike the corset tops of the 90s, which were essentially boned camisoles or bustiers. As a feminist myself, there is nothing more empowering than to see fashions recirculating and being given a platform bigger than ever for people to express their own style. By this point, feminism isn’t just equal rights, it’s up typically “feminine” or “masculine” fashions to everyone and not giving a damn. Whilst corsets have been falling in and out of fashion over the past hundred years, our inner love of the iconic garment has never wavered.
Corsets aren’t just undergarments anymore, they’re a sign of empowerment and freedom. This is the freedom to dress how we want, without fear of societal standards. Modern fashion isn’t gate-kept, that’s the best part about the revival of these corsets. One ultimate feminist power move is to take a historically taboo garment and make it accessible now for everyone. In the past, corsets were thrown aside to be forgotten as women’s freedom grew. But the corsets of today are a great reflection of how far our freedom both socially, and fashion-wise, has come. And to think that a Regency-inspired Netflix show kicked-started the desire to reclaim this fashion icon from the depths of sexual objectification and women can make the garment their own. Far from its hidden undergarment roots, the evolution of this coveted piece has been long and rough but looking at how far it has come in society is astounding. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to style up my outfit with a corset.